For Feiy’s Impact Series our writer in residence Nika Dulevich is talking to entrepreneurs who pursue a path greater than just profit and strive to contribute to the greater good with their products and services.
在这次的 Feiy’s 冲击系列，作家 Nika Dulevich 会与不仅仅追求盈利道路并努力通过其产品和服务为更大的利益做出贡献的企业家们。
The business owner she talked to this time is Teck Tin Wong, the founder and CEO of RenewMaterial (www.renewmaterial.com), an international company focused on research and development of renewable, sustainable and green alternatives to wood.
In this interview TT talks about his struggle with creating and promoting innovative products, shares his insight into the dangers of formaldehyde and PVC, and opens up about the legacy he wants to leave behind.
This is the first part of a two-part interview where TT talks about his struggle creating and promoting innovative products, shares his business insight and opens up about sustainable business in China. You can read the second part of the interview here
这是 TT 在两部分访谈的第一部分，他谈到了他创造和推广创新产品的斗争，分享了他的商业见解，并开启了在中国的可持续业务。你可以在这里阅读采访的第二部分
Interviewer: How did RenewMaterial start and how did the first years of the company look like?
TT Wong: In summer 2000 I did a project in Anhui, Hefei. It was the time when farmers were burning wheat during the harvest season. In those days, when farmers started burning wheat, you could put your hand out and you couldn’t see it. The smoke was that bad that flights were delayed. Even while staying in a hotel, you could smell the smoke. There I met with local authorities who asked me to help resolve this problem.
I realized that it was a good project to get into, so I started doing research. A short while after, I quit my job to do it fulltime. I spent three years in China doing research and then a little longer to wait for the right time to launch.
For a project like this to be successful, one of the key factors is where and how often we can get the raw materials. So I spent almost three years looking for the best location to build a factory. I was lucky enough to find someone willing to let me use their facilities to do the R&D. After three years of trial and error, I got a worldwide patent. After getting the patent, I started seeking investment and was lucky to raise enough funds to start RenewMaterial in Taizhou, Jiangsu province.
对于这样的项目的成功，其中一个关键因素是，我们可以在哪里和多久一次才能获得原材料。因此，我花了近三年的时间寻找最好的位置，以建立一个工厂。我很幸运地找到了一个愿意让我利用他们的设施进行研发的人。经过三年的测试，我获得了世界专利。获得专利后，我开始寻求投资，幸运地筹集到足够的资金，在江苏泰州开始 RenewMaterial 的计划。
Interviewer: What do you think of your competition? What if more companies get into using more renewable materials, straw specifically? Would you welcome that?
TT Wong: I think the market is quite big. What we’re trying to do is to come up with an alternative material to wood. The demand for manmade materials like plywood, MDM-board, even timber is huge, there is no way that one company or one person can take all the market. I welcome competition, only through competition one can improve. I strongly believe that in China alone we can have 10, 50, 100 competitors.
Interviewer: In general, do you think of the sustainable business world as more of a game of competition or a place for cooperation? How does it affect how you operate and develop RenewMaterial?
TT Wong: I think it’s a place for cooperation. Ten brains are better than one. Everyone has ideas, strengths, and weaknesses, and if we put our strengths together, we may come up with something incredible.
Interviewer: What has been one key factor in RenewMaterial success?
TT Wong: Our biggest success is our technology. Many companies produce strawboard using wheat or agricultural straw and have been doing it for a long time. But the technology that most companies use is not good enough and products still have a lot of quality issues. We managed to come up with a much more superior technology. \
Traditionally, most of the technology is like making an Indian pancake – you compress it and cut it into shapes. What we’re doing is very different. We do a closed mold. The significant difference between these two technologies is that with the latter one, you can vary the density.
传统上，大多数技术就像制作印度煎饼一样 — 你把它压缩并切成形状。我们正在做的事情大不相同。我们做一个封闭的模具。这两种技术之间的显著区别在于，使用后一种技术，您可以更改密度。
Most of the strawboard available in the market in the past could achieve a maximum density of 700 kg per meter cubed. By doing a closed mold, we can have up to 1300 kg per meter cubed. On top of that, we can make different shapes.
In terms of property, it is water-resistant, fire retardant, termite-, fungus-, moisture protected. Some companies started making strawboard in China and had to shut down because this material is prone to growing fungus. We don’t have such problem. Overall, our material is much better if compared to the traditional way of making strawboard.
Another strength that our products have over others is that we use up to 95% of agricultural fiber. A lot of similar technologies add plastic resin, for example. There’s a Chinese company, I do not want to mention their name, claim they are making strawboard, but they only use 5% of straw and the rest of it is wood chip and plastic resin. \
The Germans have come up with a technology that exclusively uses straw, but they mix it with plastic. Once you mix in plastic, it is no longer biodegradable. When you compress plastic into the product, it takes a much longer time to degrade, especially if it is recycled plastic. So this technology is being slowly phased out because the products are not bio-degradable.
We are quite different from the rest, as we came up with new material, which is superior to others, as it is formaldehyde-free, high density, and has several other unique properties.
Most strawboard available in the market cannot be used for flooring, but ours can. We can do wall panels, tables, chairs, as well as packaging materials, like pallets. Our pallets have been traveling around the world without any problems, and they’re strong enough to be used for other products.
Interviewer: What do you find to be the biggest challenge you faced throughout the years?
TT Wong: When you’re coming up with something completely new, something no one has ever done before, market acceptance is one of the greatest challenges. We came up with our packaging product in 2013-14. When we were introducing it to MNCs, the first question was “Who has already used it?”. They wanted it to have proven its value before they started using it. It took me 3-4 years to launch a product and gain market acceptance.
王：当你要找到一些全新的东西时，市场接受是最大的挑战之一。我们在 2013-14 年想出了我们的包装产品。当我们向跨国公司介绍它时，第一个问题是"谁已经用过它了？他们希望在开始使用它之前证明它的价值。我花了3-4年时间推出一种产品，并获得市场认可。
My first customer was Shanghai Volkswagen Powertrain. They saw my product at one of the exhibitions and invited me to speak about it as I found a tremendous cost-saving know-how for them.
If you use a traditional wooden pallet for transportation, you need to do fumigation and heat treatment before you can export it to another country. So the problem they faced was that they had many suppliers delivering different components to their factory using local wooden pallets that were not treated. And if they had to send something out of China, they have to buy a treated pallet. They also had to face the problem of disposing of old pallets. I suggested to ask their suppliers to use my pallets.
“When they deliver to you, you can use the same pallet for export because our palette is exempted from fumigation and heat treatment (ISPM-15) since it is manufactured with high heat and high pressure.” They agreed and became my first customer. Subsequently, when they started using it, it was much easier for me to introduce it to other companies. Today, we have over 10 MNCs using our products, including companies like HP, Shell, Philips and DuPont. So, the main challenge was being accepted in the market and having enough patience to wait 3-4 years to sell our first product.
"当他们交付给您时，您可以使用同一托盘进行出口，因为我们的调色板不受熏蒸和热处理 （ISPM-15），因为它采用高温和高压制造。他们同意了，成了我的第一个客户。后来，当他们开始使用它，我更容易把它介绍给其他公司。如今，我们有超过 10 家跨国公司使用我们的产品，包括惠普、壳牌、飞利浦和杜邦等公司。因此，主要的挑战是在市场上被接受，并有足够的耐心等待，耐心来等待3-4年才销售我们的第一个产品。
Interviewer: What has been your biggest lesson learned throughout the years working with renewable materials in China and beyond?
TT Wong: I think the biggest lesson learned is that location is very important for our business. In the beginning, we found a place that had a lot of straw material, but three years later it became a big construction site.
You need a lot of resources and money to build a factory so it is hard to change locations. In fact, to date, we have invested close to USD 60 million in the place and built all the infrastructure. For this business, you need a huge area to store and process the material. Our factory is the size of about 18 football fields. It’s not easy to just move from one place to another.
Today, you can’t even get a piece of land that big, you need double or triple the amount we invested. In the early days, we could get it, but now it’s quite difficult.
So, one of the lessons we learned is to look at long-term raw material supply and how to get good staff there since it can be quite remote for our kind of business. The area of Taizhou, Jiangyan where our factory is, is larger than that of Singapore but their population is only 800,000. It’s very difficult to get people there. I’m fortunate enough to bring in Indian workers to the factory.
Our factory is the only one in the region that has a lot of foreigners, particularly from India. These workers are stable, they will work for at least two years, while in Jiangyan area, the staff turnover is very high.
Another lesson learned is you must always prepare. We assumed we could launch a product in 1-2 years, but it took us 3-4 years. Luckily enough, we had resources. If we didn’t, we would have closed down.
Interviewer: What are your plans for the future of RenewMaterial?
TT Wong: We are growing our current business with packaging options. It has been quite successful as the market acceptance is there. We have also expanded our factory to make sustainable furniture products, because I realized that people around the world are still using unhealthy flooring, with high formaldehyde concentration.
The average formaldehyde content for the MDF board and plywood on the market range from 1.5 to 3 ppm. But for humans, it is healthy to use up to 0.05 ppm. The United States have passed the law that all man-made material must not have formaldehyde content over 0.05 ppm. But today, the European standard is E0-0.5 ppm which is 10 times higher. The reason is that it’s the cheapest option and if they pass a new law, there will be no supply.
市场上 MDF 板和胶合板的平均甲醛含量从 1.5 到 3 ppm 之间。但对于人类来说，使用高达0. 05ppm是健康的。美国已经通过了法律，所有人为材料的甲醛含量不得超过0. 05ppm。但今天，欧洲标准是E0-0.5 ppm，这是10倍以上。原因是这是最便宜的选择，如果他们通过一个新的法律，将没有供应。
Interviewer: And there’s no alternative in the market?
TT Wong: There is, but it’s much more expensive. So, this is one of the concerns. If you look at data, there are about 2 million children in China that die from using materials with high formaldehyde content every year. Today it’s easy to find a formaldehyde measuring meter. You walk into any exhibition center, the content can be 3 to 5 ppm.
王：有，但是要贵得多。因此，这是人们关心的问题之一。如果你看看数据，中国每年约有200万儿童死于使用甲醛含量高的材料。今天很容易找到甲醛测量仪。您走进任何展览中心，内容可以是 3 到 5 ppm。
Most exhibitions want to do a quick job, so they use the cheapest plywood because they need it only for a few days and they use all kinds of glue to put it together. So every time you walk through the exhibition, you feel giddy and tired, which is mainly because of formaldehyde.
The World Health Organization has identified formaldehyde as carcinogenic, that’s the reason why the US has put a stop on it and why we want to get into furniture. Our material is nontoxic for humans, especially considering that today a lot of flooring is made from PVC. PVC is toxic for both the environment and human health. If you have children, try not to use any PVC material.
PVC emits over 100 different chemicals into the air and these are all harmful to humans. PVC is neither biodegradable, nor healthy. I remember when I was a young engineer in 1997, PVC was banned, but I don’t know why PVC came back for flooring and all kinds of different things.
Our material can be used for furniture and flooring. It is truly sustainable, made from the natural fiber with no formaldehyde content. Our material has been sent to Switzerland for testing and has been proven to have no formaldehyde.
None of our products use toxic paint. For most of our material, we use wax-oil, a natural oil, and PUR adhesive, which is expensive, but we insist on using it because anything to do with standard glue contains formaldehyde. So， all our products are truly environmentally friendly and sustainable.